Numbers in ancient Egypt


29 November 2007.

Egyptian numbersFrom The Times, in London, England:

Why a Nile tadpole means a great deal

Ancient Egypt’s awkward numerical system was based largely on the natural world

George Hart

Recording numbers and quantities was one of the first requirements of the bureaucracy as soon as hieroglyphs had been invented. Items to be accounted for varied from enemies slain in battle and prisoners to how many jars of beer or bunches of onions were needed to accompany the Pharaoh into the afterlife. Inventories of equipment used in temples were kept meticulously and any damage noted down.

The system of writing numbers was logical but cumbersome and took up a lot of space. A vertical or horizontal stroke indicated numbers 1 to 9, a hobble for cattle 10 to 90, a coil of rope 100 to 900 and a lotus 1,000 to 9,000. For higher numerals 10,000 was represented by a finger raised for counting and 100,000 by a tadpole – of which myriads would emerge in the pools left by the Nile’s annual flood. The concept of a million was confined to royal propaganda to convey the sense of the infinite number of years for which the Pharaoh and his monuments would exist. The notation took the form of a god with his arms raised to support the sky.

Where do you find hieroglyphs? See here.

How to read hieroglyphs: here.

Nubian pharaohs: here.

In a landmark article in the March/April 2010 issue of BAR, Orly Goldwasser, professor of Egyptology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explained how the very first alphabet, from which all other alphabets developed, was invented by illiterate Canaanite miners in the turquoise mines of Serabit el-Khadem in the Sinai peninsula. Inspired by Egyptian pictorial hieroglyphs and a desire to articulate their own thoughts in writing, these Canaanites created 22 alphabetic acrophonetic signs scratched into the rock that could express their entire language: here.

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